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Failure can be an option | James Dyson

Success is overrated. Losing out on the sports field and in the office can spur us on to greater things

At school they might teach you it's the taking part not the winning that counts, but I doubt that is the mantra in the Olympic village. With the nation's hopes resting on Team GB's broad shoulders, most people really want an uncomplicated win, a resounding success at first attempt. Failure is disappointing, shameful, definitive.

I disagree. Failure, coupled with perseverance, can be the springboard to better things. For example, I expect that Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee athlete running the 400m for South Africa, has something to say about overcoming setbacks. The 2007 ban preventing him from competing against able-bodied athletes has been overturned, and he will be in London this year.

Success takes time, patience and perseverance – not just in track and field. Exactly 5,126 attempts to make the first bagless vacuum cleaner were failures – some catastrophic disappointments, some minor defects. It took 15 years. Prototype 5,127 was the success. During the past 20 years I have fought countless legal battles to protect years of work. Most of the time we are successful. Occasionally we fail. It is a painful process but it spurs me on to invent more.

In the digital age of "overnight" success stories such as Facebook, the hard slog is easily overlooked. More often than not, success is the result of months and years of consecutive all-nighters. Trial and error, setback after setback. Failure is painful, but it spurs on improvement like nothing else.

And yet, we try increasingly hard to avoid failure these days. More schools are holding sports days without winners and losers. The approaching exam results are once again expected to outperform last year's, threatening to render many students' genuine achievement meaningless in the eyes of many people. I myself scraped seven poor passes at O-level. I had, and still have, little patience for rote learning the "right" answer. Instead, I excelled at creating things – inventing and art. Without understanding where my strengths were, I might not have found my way to the hub for designers, engineers and scientists that is London's Royal College of Art. Like all good educational institutions, it was a place for trial and error, wrong thinking and frustration but also triumph and achievement.

My own experience with failure at college is part of the reason I now advocate design and technology in schools. D&T is an arena for making mistakes, and slowly crafting successes – getting your hands on materials and tools, taking things apart just to see how they work. Not just the incubator for would-be Edisons, D&T teaches perseverance – sketch, build, test, rebuild. Only 10% of students take D&T at GCSE; this falls to 4% at A-level. Its long-term future as a core subject remains uncertain. I do not accept that young people aren't interested in D&T – it just needs to be reinvigorated, brought up to date.

The current emphasis on rote learning right answers over inventiveness and practical skills rewards regurgitation over intellect and instinct. Pretending there are no winners and losers in school sports undermines achievement. But far more importantly, it crushes the incentive to improve, and does not prepare young people for the trials ahead. In school, let us reward those high achievers but, with a closer look, we can also applaud those failures who give every clue of going on to win even bigger. Changes to the education system are necessary and long overdue.

The keen sting of failure should not be shunned. It can spur on greatness, the cue to persist against the odds. Keep an eye out for the athletes who don't make it to the podium this year. They may hold gold in Rio 2016. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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